Just when you think Pixar is done surprising its audiences with clever moral and emotional representations, the creators at Pixar come up with Soul.
The film tells a story about a middle school music teacher, Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), who dreams of becoming a famous Jazz musician, and has been waiting for his one chance to show the world his talent for playing the piano.
At a deeper level, the film expressed how there is meaning in simply being alive and moving beyond the belief that we have one singular purpose. Soul tries to show how damaging the purpose narrative can be to our mental health if it’s exchanged for the cost of actually living and enjoying life.
While the movie has it’s undeniable flaws (which we’ll get into), Soul touches on some heavy topics in a clever way that makes you want to let a good movie be a good movie without strapping it to an operating table and picking it apart.
But before we can go straight into unheeding praise, let’s acknowledge one of the biggest critiques about the film: that the lead character, Joe, spends majority of the film in a form other than his own, erasing his Black being.
This isn’t the first time a Disney animation has done this to a Black character. In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana, the first ever Black Disney princess, spends most of her time disembodied as a frog instead of in her natural, human form.
There were also large criticisms about how off-putting it was to see a white woman speaking in the body of a Black man for a large portion of the film (after Tina Fey’s character, 22, falls into Joe’s body while Joe falls into the therapy cat that lies at his bed).
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-familiar pattern.
In Hollywood filmmaking, Black characters often exist primarily for the emotional development of white protagonists, often by dying or sacrificing in some significant way. So here it is, a movie about a Black protagonist, and he’s somehow no longer the centre of his own story, but finds his emotional needs decentred in favour of a White person’s.
This is after all, supposed to be the story of a Black man, and the story of being Black in America is often a story of struggle.
Pixar has been making movies for more than twenty-five years, and this is the first story they’ve told about a Black person as a main character.
What’s interesting is that in interviews with the director, Pete Docter, he admitted that his vision for the film did not start with a Black protagonist:
“At the very beginning, it was a very personal story of trying to figure this out… What’s the world about? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? And so I wanted to take people on this artist’s journey of finding a character that we could root for, that we find compelling and interesting. We played around, for a little while, with an actor or scientist, but as soon as we found a jazz musician, that felt very selfless. You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous. You do it because you love it. And you have a passion for it.”
At the point where Docter realized that jazz, being a historically Black artform, would require a Black protagonist, he and the team at Pixar made an intentional effort to seek out and amplify the feedback of other talented Black people in their orbit.
This was an ongoing process, and one of the outcomes meant that Kemp Powers, originally brought on as a writer, became elevated to the position of co-director. This is how Powers explained the process to Slate:
“It was largely, I think, a result of the fact that from very early on in the process they had me doing ‘writer and.’ You know what I mean? Like ‘writer plus.’”
My personal qualm with Black-led Disney films is that Blackness is never, rarely if ever, treated with the same normalcy as whiteness.
In films and society as a whole, Blackness can be defined, but whiteness can’t. A white Princess or lead can be anything: they can be anything, do anything, make mistakes, be mermaids, or toys.
However Black characters (and all non-white leads in Disney) always end up struggling with their culture, or struggling with paying their rent.
I would like to see Black characters with the same level of normalcy. Black mermaids whose race is never considered. Black kings and Black queens who didn’t have to work their hands to the bone to earn their throne, and that not be questioned.
However, my personal desire doesn’t necessarily negate from the value of stories like The Princess and the Frog, or Soul, as there is inherent richness in individual Black experiences.
Disney can do better, that much is obvious. But I think it’s important to acknowledge the evolution of these stories and the value they present, at the same time we recognize their inherent flaws.
More recent Pixar movies have tackled seemingly impossible topics like emotions, life’s purpose, the afterlife and grief.
Whether by societal pressure or generational white guilt, the faces of Disney are transforming to look more and more like the faces of America with each release. The misogynistic themes and plot points of decades past seem to have fallen away to instead contend with big-picture and deeply intimate themes just as Soul has done.
In a way, the beauty of Soul is that race isn’t used as a point of contention but rather as cultural enrichment. It’s not perfect, but if I had to hedge my bets on how Soul ages, I would say it has a timeless theme that will be relevant for generations to come.
What were your thoughts?